My first outings with videogames were memorable but far from profound. Most Argentine children of my generation grew up with the Family Game, a cheap Nintendo emulator made in China. With it, I jumped through Super Mario Brothers and Antarctic Adventure, which motivated my attachment to the medium but never fascinated me. Even when I graduated to the Super Nintendo, a legal one, I still considered videogames to be one among several fun activities, like sports or trading cards. In 1997, though, one title would teach me that there were unexpected feelings to experience through videogames.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is now a landmark, but for me, almost two decades ago, it was a revelation. One’s personal history with a medium is always subjective, and many of the ideas I discovered in Ocarina of Time were not at all new, even for the franchise. I had never heard of Zelda before, let alone role-playing games, perhaps because my gaming friends were too preoccupied with Super Mario World and Mortal Kombat II. So the concept of a large unified world, not divided up into levels, was shocking. I was slow to catch on to what this implied, and the first images I saw of Ocarina of Time were disconcerting. Before the game’s release, I analyzed dozens of early screenshots, and looking at the map displays, I concluded, with horror, that the levels would be extraordinarily small. It didn’t even occur to me that the maps might represent not levels but tiny tracts of geography: say a mountainside access to Goron City. I had to rethink the medium in order to understand Ocarina of Time.
Never before had a game provided me with a place to inhabit. Missing was the surrealism of earlier titles, in which droves of enemies wait in unlikely rooms filled with inexplicable platforms, traps, and pipes. Here, instead, is a land of believable cities and fields, with characters who exist to provide conversation and not to inspire danger. There are also majestic temples built according to a logical blueprint, and figuring out their secrets involves unwinding their layout. Wherever you stand in the kingdom of Hyrule, you can trace a path anywhere else. All points connect, and no square of real estate is removed from the surrounding scenery.
When a game is fragmented into levels, the enormity of the virtual world becomes an abstraction. No connecting tissue spans between one area and the next, so each floats alone in the electronic ether, and when we move through a level, the reality of other levels is no longer relevant. Ocarina of Time functions differently: even though its sprawling dungeons can make us forget the fact, we are always somewhere in Hyrule, and though we might not constantly interact with the entirety of the land, it is always there. It exists, in our imagination, as a presence or shadow. When we first begin our quest, the world beyond is a mystery, and as we learn about it, we come to grasp it. Either way, Hyrule plays a role, if only as potential space. Wherever we are, we could be somewhere else, as long as we keep walking in a certain direction. It might seem trivial, but this is why Ocarina of Time is so famously immersive because the world we are saving is forever in our minds.
As I said, this was not new in 1997, but it was the first I saw of it. For other gamers, perhaps more accustomed to the franchise and the genre, the appeal was rather the fully realized three-dimensional world, not such a common achievement in those days. Since then, Ocarina of Time has retained its historical importance if not quite its popularity, even among fans of the franchise. Many have come to prefer the earlier Super Nintendo and Gameboy classics, and others, like myself, believe it was a rehearsal in preparation for Majora’s Mask, which had weightier ideas. Yet for some of us, Ocarina of Time was the harbinger of experiences to come, before open-world or sandbox games, and their claims to realism or verisimilitude became a cliché.
Now, it’s possible to actually look back with nostalgia at many oldies, with their bizarre architecture: Bungie’s Marathon, for instance, set in a ridiculous spaceship of transforming halls and passages, evil traps and impossible angles, which makes no narrative sense whatsoever but allows for entertaining gunfights. The modern convention, instead, is for virtual space to be coherent and relatively plausible, and the resulting gain in immersion is offset by a loss in imagination and creativity. Modern indies like Kairo and VVVVV are notable, in fact, for reminding us of the wild and outlandish possibilities of the medium. But when Ocarina of Time was sent out to the market, none of this was the case, and the possibility of existing inside a living Hyrule was intoxicating beyond anything I had played before.
Image courtesy of i.imgur.com/QjXKjU…